Two fine orchestras almost overlap
Bucharest, capital of Romania, is about as far east in Europe as you can go before you plop into the Black Sea. It’s also, as I’m discovering, a veritable Mecca for great music-making. Think Romania, and think classical music, and the names that will probably slip easily into the mind are Dinu Lipatti, Radu Lupu, Angela Gheorghiu, Constantin Silvestri and maybe a couple of others. Come to Bucharest and the Main Man is, without doubt, George Enescu. He gives his name to streets, to orchestras and to a music festival of commendable ambition.
This year’s festival - it takes place every two years - is a particularly starry affair: on the programme are the Venice Baroque Orchestra, the LSO, the Lausanne CO, the ASMF, the Mariinsky orchestra, the Gulbenkian SO, the Staatskapelle Berlin, the Hungarian National PO, the VPO, the Kamerata Salzburg, the RLPO, the Israel PO and many other local and visiting ensembles and artists. It gives Lucerne a run for its money – and the ticket prices are considerably cheaper!
My two days here take in concerts by the Hungarian National PO and Zoltán Kocsis, the Berlin Staatskapelle and Daniel Barenboim, and a new production of Enescu’s Oedipe. It’s a slightly action-packed couple of days, but as I’ve been immersing myself in the music of Enescu over the past few months, it’s an opportunity not to be passed up.
I spoke with the Festival’s director Mihai Constantinescu and he revealed that it was a stipulation that when an orchestra returns to the festival, it must feature some Enescu on the programme – a highly commendable rule and one that certainly perks up the often rather predictable programming when orchestras goes on tour. (Gergiev is doing Symphony No 3, Petrenko the Second Suite, Mehta an overture, Lawrence Foster – Enescu’s greatest non-Romanian champion – the Third Suite and Kocsis the Second Symphony – more on that later.)
So, first up, it seemed only right to pay a visit to the great man’s museum and former residence. Enescu married Maria (Maruca), the widow of the son of a former Mayor of Bucharest, Gheorghie Grigore Cantacunzino, who built his eponymous palace in the first years of the last century. It’s a beautiful example of Art Nouveau and the interior contains the work of many of Romania’s leading artists and architects. After Enescu’s death in 1955, his widow gathered together many of his belongings and dedicated the Palace as a museum to his memory. And it’s full of wonderful things – a few of his violins (including “The Cathedral” Guanerius from 1731) and numerous photographs (there are superb images of him with his teacher Gabriel Faure, another with Karajan in 1942, and some with Shostakovich and a group of Soviet musicians, including Oistrakh).
There are plenty of scores and programmes. I was very taken by a programme he gave in Cleveland, Ohio in 1929 which showed off Enescu's threefold talents as composer, violinist and conductor: as well as an orchestra work of his own, he also played a Mozart violin concerto and conducted Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony, no less! Behind the Palace is the considerably more modest residence where Enescu and his wife actually lived – the Palace was used for entertaining. It seems to convey more genuinely the man’s gentle modesty and lack of pretension.
Concert No 1 took place in the remarkable Romanian Athenaeum, a striking edifice with a fine rotunda and a circular concert-hall set up in the building’s dome. With outside temperatures of 34 degrees, the highly effective air-conditioning was enormously appreciated! The interior redefines the word “ornate” as a large mural runs around the entire wall (except for a stage-sized alcove to house the orchestra) and depicts important events in Romanian history. The hall is also rather fine acoustically. Zoltán Kocsis, pianist-turned-conductor, gave flavoursome accounts of Bartok’s Dance Suite and the Second Piano Concerto with Boris Berezovsky as the wonderfully forceful soloist (is there nothing he can’t play with breathtaking nonchalance?). The orchestra was on great form, confirming yet again, what fabulous musicians Hungary turns out. There was wit and sparkle aplenty, as well as some ravishing colours. Perhaps with a nod to the sweltering temperature Berezovsky gave us a languid Asturias by Albéniz and a naughty rendition of Morton Gould’s Boogie-Woogie Etude.
The highlight of the concert, though, was what I’d come for: Enescu’s Second Symphony which Kocsis conducted without a score. This was no dutiful run-through to satisfy the Festival’s rules; it was a superb performance, played with panache and great brilliance, aligning the symphony more to a Straussian sound-world than that of Szymanowski (which it can also support quite easily). Solo work was elegantly done (particularly from the leaders of both violin sections: Enescu looking after his fellow fiddlers), and there’s a terrific moment – repeated a couple of times – in the finale where the orchestral piano threatens to derail proceedings. I can’t imagine hearing the work done better, and hats off to Kocsis and his fellow Hungarians for a great performance.
But every silver lining brings a cloud, and this one was caused by some ill-thought-through scheduling. The programme started at 5pm and ended at 7.10. Concert No 2 started at 7.30 in a different venue, one about an eight-minute walk away. As a result, the finale of the Enescu symphony witnessed a constant stream of people leaving to get the next event: insulting to Enescu and highly insulting to the orchestra. The look of surprise on Kocsis’s face as he took his first bow was all too clear: half the audience was fleeing for the exits. He must have wondered what he’d done wrong. And as one forming part of that mass-exodus I felt extremely uncomfortable: I’d have liked to have stayed and cheered. Festivals are invariably about musical overdosing, so it’s surely no surprise that a lot of people were taking in both concerts that evening.
So, puffed out, overheated and in needed of a drink of water, I fought for my seat in the vast and cavernous Sala Palatului, built for Ceausescu to harangue his people, and not a space that does music-making too many favours. But it does have the capacity for a huge audience, many of whom – with delicious disregard for health and safety – sit and stand in the aisles. The Staatskapelle Berlin looked almost lost on the vast stage, but with lid-less piano facing into the band, they gave an utterly delightful account of Mozart’s K482 Piano Concerto (No 22). Old-fashioned Barenboim’s orchestral sound may be – firm, lush and rounded – but the chamber-music sensibility here was a joy, and it’s such a treat to witness a conductor and musicians evidently enjoying each others’ musical company. There were numerous moments where Barenboim would choose an unusual voicing and pick out a little motif to toss to one of his orchestral partners – and they would pick it up and toss it on. It was like a very elegant game, and given this concerto’s heart-melting rondo finale, it left smiles on many faces.
After two piano concertos, a large symphony and an orchestral suite, I ducked out of the Liszt Faust Symphony (2011's hefty dose of Lisztomania has induced a slight resistance) and passed my ticket to a colleague – I hope he managed to claim the seat: tickets here don’t actually seem to guarantee that you can sit where you’re supposed.
James Jolly is Gramophone's Editor-in-Chief. After four years of co-presenting BBC Radio 3's weekday morning programme "Classical Collection" has moved to Sunday mornings, with Rob Cowan his fellow presenter; he also hosts some Saturday afternoon shows. His blogs will explore live and recorded music, as well as downloading and digital delivery.